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Phoenix Rises From Obscurity to Run Riot With Disco

Laurent Brancowitz, Thomas Mars and Deck D'arcy of Phoenix. The band's most recent album is
Laurent Brancowitz, Thomas Mars and Deck D'arcy of Phoenix. The band's most recent album is "Bankrupt!" Photographer: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

May 21 (Bloomberg) -- Phoenix’s star is rising. The band has rave reviews, wild shows and soaring sales.

Singer Thomas Mars, husband of Sofia Coppola, jumps into the crowd. Belting out a stadium-sized chorus, he’s soon being hoisted up to the theater balcony by adoring fans.

The London concert showcases the Phoenix phenomenon -- one of the strangest in rock. For years, the Frenchmen have been making neatly bourgeois pop-rock with a 1980s sheen.

They looked set for a career of moderate obscurity, better known for Mars’s spouse and the fact that guitarist Laurent Brancowitz used to be in a band with the more successful and famous Daft Punk (which has just released a new record, too.)

Then, in 2009, the fourth Phoenix album, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” won a Grammy. The most recent CD, “Bankrupt!” was eagerly awaited and also garlanded with praise.

So far this year, Phoenix didn’t just play at California’s Coachella music festival -- they headlined it, joined onstage by R ‘n’ B superstar R. Kelly.

They have toured in the U.S. and Europe -- the London show at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire was riotous -- and have a summer of festivals ahead on both sides of the Atlantic.

The music is as frisky and fresh-faced as models in a Tommy Hilfiger advertisement. Organs build up clean-cut chord sequences. Polished synths add 1980’s zest.

Crisp disco-rock beats provide energy, Christian Mazzalai and Brancowitz’s zippy, interlocking guitars excitement. Mars delivers the tunes with bookish schoolboy enthusiasm.

Barnstorming Melody

The new song “Entertainment” is an apt opener. “Lasso” and a jubilant “Lisztomania” come with a barnstorming melody that would make Arcade Fire proud and considered song-writing to keep things interesting after the hooks eventually subside.

There isn’t great emotional angst, earnest issue-thumping or rock ‘n’ roll devilry. Phoenix’s musical disposition is sunny and shiny, its listeners happy to be happy.

Mars, in blue shirt and well-cut denim, is neat and unruffled even when crowd surfing.

The impressive lighting design, all saturated colors and geometric spotlight beams, is like a hyperactive James Turrell installation.

A rainbow barrage of multicolored strobes accompanies “Sunskrupt,” a live amalgamation of “Love Like A Sunset” and “Bankrupt!” Its swirls of noise demonstrate ambitions beyond mere crowd pleasers. The tantalizing similarities to obscure 1990s dream-poppers Butterfly Child can only be positive.

“Too Young” and “Girlfriend” are lighter and funkier. The hint of Michael Jackson twinkles with just enough knowing irony to be successful. “Rome” and a giddy reprise of “Entertainment” finish the show with a feel-good flourish.

Politeness has never sounded so exciting.

Rating: ****.

The Phoenix tour continues on May 23 at the Primavera Festival, Barcelona, Spain. Shows follow in countries including the U.K., France, Germany, Sweden and Denmark. U.S. dates include Lollapalooza in August and the Barclays Center, New York, in October. Information: http://www.wearephoenix.com/tour/

(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Richard Vines on food, Catherine Hickley on German art and Jeremy Gerard on U.S. theater.

To contact the writer on the story: Robert Heller in London at roberthelleruk@yahoo.co.uk

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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